Baby, What a Big Surprise*

SurprisesAn interesting post from Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about how surprising fictional characters can be. In her post Craig makes the point that there are several ways in which authors can make their characters more surprising and therefore richer. She’s right. Characters who surprise us in some way can add to a story. Of course, as with any other aspect of a novel, one has to be careful with this strategy. A character who’s surprising in an implausible way pulls the reader right out of the story. But adding that sort of depth to a character, even if it’s not the protagonist, can make a story all the more absorbing.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Miss Lemon asks him to investigate some strange goings-on at the student hostel that her sister manages. Poirot is surprised that Miss Lemon even has a sister and that alone – thinking of Miss Lemon as actually having a family – gives him a bit of pause. When one of the hostel residents Celia Austin confesses to a lot of the strange things that have happened, everyone thinks the matter is settled. But then two nights later Celia dies, an apparent suicide. It’s soon proven to be murder though and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who was responsible. Part of the murder investigation involves searches of the residents’ belongings, and when the inspector and his team conduct those searches they find out some surprising things about some of the other people who live in the hostel.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, crime writer Erica Falck is sorting through her parents’ things after their deaths. She comes upon a Nazi medal that completely takes her by surprise. Certainly no-one in her family had given any hint that there might have been a connection to the Nazi regime. This discovery sheds a whole new light on Falck’s parents so Falck visits retired historian Erik Frankel, hoping that he’ll be able to tell her more about that period of the local history. Two days after that visit Frankel is murdered. It’s soon clear that someone in the present day doesn’t want the town’s history to be unearthed. Falck’s husband police officer Patrik Hedström gets involved in the murder investigation even though he’s supposed to be on paternity leave and in her own way Falck investigates too. In the end they find the connection between the case they’re looking into and World War II-era events.

Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish introduces us to Absaroka County, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. When the body of a local young man Cody Pritchard is discovered not far from the town of Durant, Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti begin to investigate. Pritchard is one of three young men who were convicted two years earlier of the brutal gang-rape of sixteen-year-old Melissa Little Bird. They’ve recently been released from prison, so a logical possibility is that someone in Melissa’s family is taking revenge. Melissa’s uncle, who also happens to be Longmire’s best friend, is Henry Standing Bear. Sometimes called The Bear, he owns The Red Pony, a local bar/restaurant. In part because he and Longmire are friends and in part because of his own family’s possible involvement in this case, The Bear takes an interest in the investigation and helps Longmire in several important ways. But even though he and Longmire have been friends for a long time, he’s still able to surprise the sheriff. For instance, Longmire has the unpleasant duty of asking his best friend where he was on the night of Cody Pritchard’s murder. That’s when he finds out that The Bear is having a relationship with his protégée and bartender Dena Many Camps. The fact of that relationship doesn’t affect the outcome of the novel but it’s a surprising side to Henry Standing Bear’s character and to Dena Many Camps’ character since she can basically have her choice of partners.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche we meet Saskatoon PI Russell Quant. Although Quant’s not in a long-term relationship when the series begins, he does have a circle of trusted friends, neighbours and co-workers. His next-door-neighbour is Sereena Orion Smith, who never fails to surprise Quant. She’s an enigmatic character to begin with and as we learn bits and pieces of her backstory she becomes richer and more interesting. For instance in Flight of Aquavit, Quant investigates a case of blackmail that later turns into murder. At one point in the novel he travels to New York to follow up on an important lead and Smith, who has business of her own there, goes along. They stay at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel where to Quant’s surprise, Smith already seems to be known – by another name. He doesn’t get much of a satisfactory explanation and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that this aspect of Smith’s character isn’t really a major key to the plot. But Bidulka follows that thread – Sereena Orion Smith’s story – in later novels. The fact that she is a surprising character adds to her appeal.

There’s also a surprising character in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Stephanie Anderson is a beginning psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. For the last seventeen years she’s been trying to put her life back together after the abduction of her four-year-old sister Gemma. She hasn’t really ‘gotten over it,’ because one doesn’t. But she has made a life for herself. Then one of her patients Elizabeth Clark tells her a story that’s eerily similar to Anderson’s own. Clark’s younger sister Gracie was also abducted and like Gemma Anderson’s case, no body was ever found, nor was there any evidence of the perpetrator. When Anderson hears this story, she decides to try to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for the abductions. So she journeys from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka to try to look for answers. Along the way she meets Dan, who makes his living as a hunting guide. Although she finds him attractive, Anderson isn’t much interested at all in hunting/survival so when he invites her for a hunting trip, she doesn’t think much of the idea. But then she changes her mind and agrees to go out in the bush for a few days. She goes to Dan’s house to learn how to shoot and is completely surprised to find that he’s not all what she thought he was. Here’s just a bit of a conversation they have when he invites her to stay for dinner:


‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Central Otago?’
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’’

Part of the interest in this novel is the way in which Anderson finds that Dan is a much richer character than she’d thought.

And then there’s Rajiv Patel, whom we meet in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Patel is filling in for his uncle, who owns and manages a Bangkok bookshop but has been sidelined by a heart attack. That’s how Patel meets PI Jayne Keeney, who enjoys reading, especially crime fiction (How can you not like that in a protagonist? 😉  ). Patel and Keeney begin seeing each other, although not seriously at first. Then, Keeney is hired by Queensland farmer Jim Delbeck to find out the truth about his daughter Maryanne’s death. Maryanne Delbeck was a volunteer at a child care facility/orphanage in Pattaya when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she was living. Delbeck doesn’t think his daughter committed suicide despite what the official reports say, so he wants Keeney to investigate. She agrees and travels to Pattaya. Throughout the case Patel proves surprisingly helpful in a number of ways and Keeney has to re-think her entire relationship with him and her view of her work. And in the end – no, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Let’s just say Patel really manages to surprise Keeney. If you’re reading this, Angela, I just love that scene!

Characters who surprise the reader can add some real interest to a novel. And when they also surprise the writer (and yes, that happens), they can keep a story or series fresh. Which characters have surprised you? If you’re a writer, do your characters ever surprise you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Chicago.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Camilla Läckberg, Craig Johnson, Paddy Richardson

28 responses to “Baby, What a Big Surprise*

  1. Skywatcher

    Characters can also surprise their authors. In the first of the Peter Diamond series, the main character was supposed to do a certain thing. As he was writing it, author Peter Lovesey realised that the character as written simply wouldn’t do what was needed, and he was forced to make changes to the ending of the book to take account of this.

    Sometimes what seems a lightweight character reveals greater depths. The early Albert Campion novels portrayed him as a rather zany, funny type. Suddenly, in DANCERS IN MOURNING, he is alarmed to discover that he is falling in love with the wife of his client. This complication is doubly effective because in the earlier books he comes across as someone who remains completely unchanged by his adventures. Here he suddenly becomes more real, and vulnerable to emotional complications.

    • Skywatcher – I couldn’t agree more about the way Albert Campion achieved far greater depth than he had at first. That’s one of the things I like about that book. It shows him evolving as a person. Great example for which thanks. And I like the Peter Diamond series very much, so I’m glad you mentioned that.

  2. I love it when characters surprise me. Knowing everything about anyone is boring, even a series hero that I love. When I travel, I love it when a place surprises me too.

    • Barbara – Oh, I like that very much too. As you say, it’s awfully boring if you can tell everything about every character right awy. And yes, part of the joy of travel is that set of surprises. As long as they don’t involve lost luggage… 😉

  3. Hi Margaret — I have a manuscript in which one of the characters suddenly dropped dead. Took me, the author, totally by surprise. 😀

  4. Margot, I know your name is not Margaret. Apparently my fingers are doing the walking today.

  5. Margot: I enjoy sleuth surprises that show intellectual depth in the character.

    In the Longmire series I did not expect the big physical Sheriff to be an accomplished piano player.

    Lawyer Arthur Beauchamp, in William Deverell’s legal mysteries, reads poetry. Enjoying verse is hardly a surprise but a character that reads Roman poets in Latin was a surprise to me.

    Equally seeing poetry in a mystery is not a shock but I was surprised when Inspector Chen, in the series by Qiu Xiaolong, writes and publishes poetry.

    • Bill – I know what you mean about the way a character can show some intellectual depth in surprising ways. And I agree that Longmire’s piano playing adds to his character; that’s a great example of what I mean. Your other examples remind me of how often poetry is woven into crime fiction. We don’t usually think of detectives as poets but some of them are and that aspect of their characters can be a surprise.

  6. kathy d.

    Good things happen when characters present surprising traits or interests. I must keep reading Russell Quant’s adventures so I find out more about Sereena. The scene you describe puzzled me, too, and had me wanting to know more.
    And, of course, I (im)patiently await Jayne Keeney’s next case so I can find out what happens with Patel.
    There are so many surprising elements in mysteries; that’s part of the thrill of reading them … secrets, unknown hobbies or talents, hidden pasts, etc.
    Fred Vargas pulls some interesting rabbits out of hats: a police officer who speaks in 12-syllable Alexandrine verse, an unknown son of Adamsberg’s who appears in one book. Or Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone having Native American family ties.
    However, I think that a character suddenly dropping dead must be a shock to the author — and then having to explain this to the readers!

    • Kathy – You’re quite right about Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series. There are some very surprising characters there, and that adds I think to the humour in those books. I’m looking to Angela Savage’s next Jayne Keeney novel too. From what I understand, it’s called Dead Beach and it’s due to be published later this year. And about Anthony Bidulka’s Sereena Orion Smith? I think she’s a really interesting character and part of the reason I think so is that she’s surprising.

  7. As ever, in awe of your wide range of reading, and the way you illustrate your topics!

  8. It’s an interesting subject. In Adrian McKinty’s ‘Cold Cold Ground’, the detective, who has already been shown to be heterosexual has an encounter with a man. It shocks him (and the reader) and adds an interesting dimension to the character.

    • Sarah – Thanks – And thanks for that example from The Cold, Cold Ground. Oh, and folks, I can recommend that book. It’s a good ‘un. You’ve reminded me Sarah of Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle. In that novel Andreas Winther and his best friend Zipp Skorpe are passing the time together. A little bored, they go out looking for some fun and that quickly spirals out of control. During that day Zipp finds out something very surprising about his friend. That too surprises the reader, shocks Zipp and adds a real dimension to Winther’s character.

  9. kathy d.

    I feel an unshakeable urge right now to order more Russell Quant books! Jayne Keeney should be stateside this year; we’ll all let each other know. I must read Paddy Richardson.

  10. THE BLACKHOUSE by Peter May is full of surprising back story about his detective. So much in fact that I wonder what will be left to explore in the two books yet to come.

    • Patti – I love it when the protagonist turns out to be surprising. It’s not easy to make that work and still have a credible character but when it’s done well it can be very effective.

  11. Interesting topic and interesting examples, Margot. One of the great things about your blog is that the comments add so much too. A great experience.

    I just got a copy of Amuse Bouche which I will be reading soon, and hope to try some of the others you mentioned here too. Paddy Richardson is new to me. Have to look into her books.

    • Tracy – That’s awfully kind of you – thanks. 🙂 I learn an awful lot from people’s comments and I’m grateful for that.
      I hope you’ll like Amuse Bouche – I love the Saskatoon setting and the Russell Quant character is terrific. As for Paddy Richardson, I just checked; her Hunting Blind is available on Amazon U.S. in Kindle form. Her Traces of Red, which I also highly recommend, is available on Amazon U.S. too but as far as I can see, only in large-print paperback format. It’s also available at Kobo

      • Thanks for looking into that, Margot. My book budget is blown right now having just bought Amuse Bouche, the first Gail Bowen novel, and a Christie I did not have. So I will have to wait awhile to get any other new books.

        • Tracy – Oh, I know all too well about book budgets *sigh*… I’ve a list of books that are going to stay on my ‘wish list’ until I’ve got the budget to buy them.

  12. Thanks so much for mentioning my post here, Margot!

    One of my favorites is Miss Marple. She looks non-threatening and sweet and seems gossipy…but she’s putting suspects at ease while collecting information to solve cases. 🙂 I think she surprised suspects in every book!

    • Elizabeth – Oh, it’s my great pleasure to mention your post. You brought up some well-taken points. And you did the same thing just now with your point about Miss Marple. Lots of people don’t take her seriously and very few consider her a threat. So when people find out that she’s both smart and shrewd, it’s often an unpleasant surprise for them. I”m thinking of a couple of endings of Miss Marple novels where the killer’s taken quite off-guard by Miss Marple’s seeming harmlessness.

  13. Margot, I’ve just been catching up on my reading for pleasure (as opposed to work) and wanted to thank you for the lovely comments about Rajiv Patel and that scene in The Half-Child. So pleased you enjoyed it. It was great fun to write, though there’s a long backstory about the process of securing rights to reproduce song lyrics… (see here & here if you’re curious)

    • Angela – Thanks for those useful links. I’m sure it is quite a process to deal with the permissions for using copyrighted lyrics. I truly do support songwriters’ rights to be credited for their work (in case you couldn’t tell 😉 ), but that does make writing scenes such as that one a bit of a challenge for the novelist. I’ll definitely have a look at your posts on the topic. In the meantime, it certainly shows a new side to Rajiv’s character.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s